Smart ForTwo Electric Drive review – generation 3

10 October 2012

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Good: Smooth responses, speedy, easy to park
Bad: Dated instruments, noisy cabin, stiff ride
Price: TBC, hopefully below £15,000 after grants
A quick glance at the instruments confirms that this third-generation electric Smart ForTwo can do something neither of the previous two iterations could manage: it can put my licence in jeopardy. As the quivering needle confirms, the new Smart Electric Drive can break the national speed limit without the aid of a steep hill – officially flat out is 78mph, whereas generations 1 and 2 were governed to stay below 60mph.

There are lots of reasons why travelling so fast isn’t a good idea in this battery-powered Smart, so I slow down a bit. The energy needed to cleave through the air will chop down the car’s battery reserves at an alarming rate – if I aim to approach the car’s official 90-mile range I’ll need to choose a much more moderate speed. Plus, the Smart is not exactly a natural high-speed cruiser. Short and tall proportions might make the car a breeze to park but they do nothing for straight-line stability. Crosswinds and bumps unsettle the electric Smart more than is strictly reassuring.

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive interior

When kept within its natural calling of suburban and urban pottering, the Smart feels much better but still not what you might call soothing. A short wheelbase plus stiff suspension equals a rodeo ride over potholes and sleeping policemen. If you want to glide serenely above our patchwork tarmac, you’ll need something at least three or four feet longer. The steering feels a little heavy in this electric version too – presumably the assistance has been dialled back to preserve precious battery reserves.

Today’s version 3 Smart EV is the first scheduled for general sale, following two experimental editions. Version 2 featured a battery pack supplied – with much fanfare – by Tesla Motors, but this car’s battery hails from the more anonymous Deutsche Accumotive, a joint venture between Smart parent company Daimler and German chemicals corporation Evonik Industries. The lithium-ion cells store 17.6kWh – about a quarter less than the battery in Nissan’s Leaf.

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive cable storage

A full charge from flat can take up to 12 hours from a domestic socket, while a 20-to-80% top-up takes 3.5 hours, according to Smart. The yellow coiled charging cable is cleverly stowed inside the drop-down portion of the split tailgate where it’s accessible even if you have filled the meagre 220-litre boot with bags.

There are also two higher-power charging options – a wallbox will fill the battery from flat in 6 hours, or a dealer’s fast charger will get the job done in just one hour.

The Smart ED’s electric motor drives the rear wheels, providing a sustained 35kW (47bhp) or up to 55kW (74bhp) for short bursts of acceleration. Given full throttle, zero to 62mph is zipped up in a respectable 11.5 seconds. The initial few seconds feel particularly brisk as is common with electric cars – the motor’s full 130Nm of torque is available from rest but the firm shove in the back quickly wanes as speed builds.

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive rear side view

Smart has set the car up to drive like an ordinary automatic, complete with a very gentle amount of forward creep on zero throttle. There’s a conventional shifter between the two seats to choose among park, reverse, neutral and drive settings.

A pair of paddles fitted closely behind the leather-trimmed steering wheel allow the driver to adjust the level of brake regeneration when slowing down, but I can’t feel much difference between the settings as I flap at them during my test. Perhaps the difference would be more noticeable on a steep descent.

Two round pods sprout up from the middle of the dashboard like mushrooms, offering an analogue estimate of battery charge on the left, plus a power/regeneration swingometer on the right.

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive instrument panel

Ahead of me, below the big conventional speedometer there’s also a dot-matrix panel giving cryptic hints about remaining range and driving efficiency, among other things. There are several screens of information to scroll through via a wheel on one of the stalks, but it’s all about as clearly presented as a Greek tax return. Next to the polished offerings in a Leaf or Chevrolet Volt, the information displays feel distinctly half-baked.

Apparently there will be an iPhone app to allow owners to plan journeys, air-condition the car remotely and do other useful things, including when docked in the car, but I haven’t witnessed its use.

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive interior

Much of the rest of the experience is standard Smart ForTwo. That means a high-set driving position, not much legroom, a bulbous rear-view mirror that obscures left-hand bends, just the two seats and an overriding impression that the interior might have been designed by Fisher Price. Or whatever the equivalent Germanic toymaker is, as the car does feel very solidly screwed together even if it has been assembled in France.

There are plenty of things to like and dislike about this latest electric Smart, but it’s hard to reach a proper conclusion in the absence of a confirmed list price. Final UK costs will be set later this year, with the first British deliveries due in spring 2013.

Sales began in Germany in June, where the Coupe costs €23,680 (about £19,000) and the Cabrio €26,770 (about £21,500). There’s also a “Sale&Care” package where buyers can drive home at a 20% discount and then rent the battery for €65 per month (about 50 quid).

Smart ForTwo Electric Drive boot badge

Here in the UK the electric Smart will qualify for the government’s plug-in-car grant, which suggests an outright purchase point at around £14,250 could be possible. If that proves to be the case, this little compact pod of a car could present a reasonably interesting proposition.

But if the 25% grant gets swallowed up and the Smart Electric Drive still costs £19,000 on the road, then I think that might be too tall an order for such a short little electric car.

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